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The 1926 May Days

“The miners occupy the front trenches of the position singled out for attack and if their wages are reduced it will be the beginning of a general wage reduction” (John Wheatley, Labour MP)

The General Strike lasted from 3rd to 12th May

Over the years a struggle had been developing between a growing militant working class and the employers and the state.The industrial working classes defined British politics in the 1920s; some 7 Million workers (one in six of the population) were employed in heavy industry or the land. Two million men worked down the mines and hundreds of thousands of others were employed in the iron and steel industry, in the railways and docks, in the building and engineering industry and in textiles and transport. The 1926 General Strike was initiated to defend the living conditions of the miners. The longer-term view of the 1926 General Strike sees it as the inevitable outcome of a struggle between classes that began during the First World War. Soldiers returning to Britain after the Great War did not find their land fit for heroes, rather one fit for zeroes. Miners that had spent years in trenches returned to pits where they were treated worse than before they had volunteered to defend the British Empire. The miners together with the dockers and railway workers formed in 1919 a Triple Alliance of one and a half million trade unionists. 1919 saw major strikes and demonstrations taking place, although they ended in disunity and failure. In 1920 a general strike was threatened to prevent British intervention in Russia against the Bolsheviks. During 1921-22, the mines were given back by the Government to private ownership and wage cuts were introduced. When the miners responded with industrial action, lock-out notices appeared, troops were deployed at the coalfields and the government declared a state of emergency. As hundreds of thousands from other industries came out in support of the mineworkers, the leaders of the other big unions reneged upon the promises of sympathy strikes. The day became known as Black Friday. Its consequence for the mineworkers was wage cuts that reached as much as 40% in some pits.(the pattern that was repeated as tragedy in 1926) In a planned a general offensive against workers, targeting the miners in July 1925 mine owners announced that they were increasing the working day, cutting wages and tearing up all previous agreements. The TUC responded by ordering an embargo on the movement of all coal, of which stocks were low and so the government encouraged the pit-owners to climbdown. The unions declared this Red Friday, a victory. In fact, it  was only a postponement of the coming battle.

On the eve of the strike a May Day demonstration (estimated at 25,000) marched in support of the miners through Bridgeton to Glasgow Green with a sense of solidarity. There was a realisation by workers that joint action by the whole trade union movement was needed to defend the wages and conditions of the working class. It was a matter of an injury to one, was an injury to all. Because of a general reductions in profits,  British capitalism was intent upon reclaiming their losses by attacking the pay and conditions of their employees. Stanley Baldwin made it clear that what his government required was pay cuts throughout British industry. Once again, the miners were the initial target. Workers concluded that the struggle in the mining industry was the key to the future working conditions of all British workers. The government was primed for a fight and was in no mood for compromise. Parliament was to be sidelined as Regional Civil Commissioners were appointed and given control over the country. Britain was to be ruled by decree. All leave for members of the armed forces was cancelled, as troops and armoured cars were stationed at the key centres of industrial militancy. The government was worried about what might happen in the great industrial cities like Glasgow and sent 7 naval vessels to the Clyde in an attempt to overawe the strikers. Naval ratings were used to protect the strikebreaking Organisation for the Maintenance of Supplies volunteers unloading cargo at the Glasgow docks.

The main groups of workers who were called out on 3rd May were those in transport (dockers, railwaymen, seamen, tramway, bus and underground workers), the printing trades and the building trades. The main impact of the strike in Glasgow, as elsewhere, was therefore the disruption of transport and the disappearance of the normal press. 

The organisation of the strike in Glasgow was in the hands of the Trades Council which became, for the duration of the strike, the core of a Central Strike Coordinating Committee (CSCC). Seventeen local area strike committees were also formed as a means of keeping closely in touch with the rank and file strikers. The maintenance of communications was one of the main functions of the strike committees. Couriers carried instructions from the STUC, which was based in Glasgow, to the central and local strike committees and the trade unions, and back came reports of local support, strike-breaking incidents and requests for advice and help in solving problems which arose at local level. Problems arose from ambiguities in instructions to unions where only some members were called out, and to whom exemptions had been granted by the TUC, e.g. to building workers involved in hospital and municipal housing. The CSCC had the job of adjudicating upon many of these individual cases. Food permits for the transport of essential food supplies were issued by the STUC. Picketing was organised by the unions who had their own strike committees.

In Airdrie and Coatbridge in Lanarkshire, the local Council of Action issued permits for transport through its transport sub-committee and organised pickets of up to 4,000 to shut down road and rail movements which it had not sanctioned. In Arran the same procedure was adopted, though here, unlike anywhere else in the west of Scotland, the transport committee granted permits for the local buses on the grounds that they served working-class people. Mass picketing was the chief means used to try to keep scab transport off the roads and rails. In Irvine and Auchinleck in Ayrshire, pickets of up to 500 stopped buses taking workers to the local docks and obstructed railway lines to hold up trains.

In the Vale of Leven, one of the most militant areas in the west of Scotland, another Council of Action were formed. Strike committees were also formed throughout North Ayrshire, the Stirlingshire coalfields and East Renfrewshire.

"Defence militias" were created in some places such as East Fife, which consisted of 700 workers who fought pitched battles with police and paramilitaries. The  STUC stayed outside of these groups, condemning them.

The Perth Strike Campaign Committee was responsible for coordinating action and making the strike as comprehensive as possible. One of its actions was to control the main roads in and out of Perth, so that only vehicles with a Strike Committee permit could do so, pickets controlled the roads to Forfar, Dundee, Edinburgh and Crieff. Striking workers held mass meetings on the North Inch throughout the strike, which was very effective in Perth. The vast majority of the men on strike came from the railways - 1800 NUR and ASLEF members employed by London Midland & Scottish Railways and London & North Eastern Railway. Other strikers were road workers; tram company workers; and those employed at John Pullars & Sons, (later to be Pullars of Perth, the dry cleaners) and Campbell’s Dye works.  A key figure in the General Strike in Perth was Tom Murray, ILP member and of the National Union of Clerks (he later joined the International Brigades in Spain and became a political commissar in the Machine-Gun Company of the British Battalion). Another important local man involved in the strike committee was the railwayman, John Haig. A churchman and an elder of the United Free Church. One of the most intimidating and menacing sights of the General Strike in Perth must have been when columns of soldiers marched through the town in full combat gear. Several companies of the 2nd Black Watch were brought down from the north in a show of state strength. From Perth, they marched through Fife and onto Stirling.

Strikers in Kinross occupied the town hall, which then became the headquarters of the strike committee. Pickets in Kinross controlled roads in and out of the town and issued permits to drivers wishing to use these roads.

In Edinburgh a central strike committee operated from the NUM headquarters in Hillside Crescent. A football pitch was used to impound vehicles that did not have trade union passes. On the 6th there were serious disturbances in Edinburgh.

Women also joined the industrial battlefield and joined picket-lines, protesting against blacklegs and fundraising for the cause. In Lochgelly, Fife, a crowd of "hostile women" assaulted workers who tried to go back to work. Seven were imprisoned as a result. In Ayrshire, 29 women were arrested for intimidating workers who had returned to the mines: they beat tin cans and trays as they followed the men along the road to the colliery. In South Lanarkshire, women threw mud and shouted at blackleg labour. In Lockerbie, women followed such men home, bawling and shouting "scab", hitting tin cans and spitting on them as they walked.  Women were also involved in protest marches and parades. In early May, women in East Lothian, drove around in an open-top carriage, singing "The Red Flag", waving the red flag, and urging others to join them. In Edinurgh, one Mary Gagen was charged with throwing "earthenware vessels" at police from her window. 

The police and OMS volunteers tried to run a tram service through Rutherglen. The first tram driven by university students protected by police got as far as Rutherglen High Street where it was surrounded by hundreds of strikers. The trolley was taken off the overhead wires, the students were manhandled, and the police beat a hasty retreat. The tram stood in the High Street silent and still for the rest of the strike. Crowds were inclined to gather in the streets, they were unorganised crowds who resented the activities of blacklegs and tended to show their anger. Spontaneous mass picketing frequently occurred throughout the strike, large numbers of men and women from a district would go out to try and stop any strike breaking activity, putting themselves at risk to arrest and imprisonment. The usual targets were buses, trams and lorries. On Tuesday the 4th of May, in the east-end of the city, three buses were attacked and overturned. On Thursday the 6th of May a miners' picket marched to Ruby Street tram depot, Ruby Street was a cul-de-sac with the tram depot gates at the top; as the miners reached the tram depot gates the gates swung open and an army of police charged out with batons drawn, a violent scene ensued with many arrests. On the same day in the city centre of Glasgow attempts were made to stop buses, one being overturned and ten people arrested. There were other violent clashes at Bridgeton with 64 arrests. There were riots on the Wednesday, Thursday and Friday with 120 arrests. In Glasgow the solidarity of the strike and the spontaneous mass picketing was an indication of the strength of feeling in support of the strike.

On Monday May the 10th 100 people appeared before the Glasgow Sheriff Court, 22 were given from 1-3 months hard labour. On the same day at the Glasgow Police Courts a further 100 cases were dealt with for minor offences. There were a large number of arrests in Glasgow during the nine days. By Monday morning about 300 had been arrested, of which 120 had been arrested in the east-end of the city between Wednesday and Friday. The police violence and high number of arrests seemed to have no effect on the morale of the strikers. Towards the end of the first week of the strike there seems to have been unprovoked police violence. This may have been an attempt to intimidate the people in the hope that they would abandon outdoor meetings and mass picketing. Bridgeton seems to have seen some of the worst of this, following the mass picket of the Ruby Street tram depot. During the day of Friday 7th the police attacked the Bridgeton area, a busy, densely populated working class district, making 44 arrests. The reason given was that youths were holding up bread vans and coal lorries. In the evening crowds gathered in the streets around Bridgeton Cross, the police and mounted police attacked the crowds with batons. The following day the Bridgeton Parish and Town Councillors complained to the superintendent of the Eastern Police Division of, "The molestation of unoffending citizens by agitated policemen who were accused of unwarranted interference with a number of persons."

There was widespread anger at the conduct of the police, even more so against the Specials - they were reviled by the strikers even more than the regular police - and at the severity of the sentences. Regulations were passed giving power to the police to prohibit public meetings. Courts were being seen as instruments of class hatred and vengeance. In one hearing a well dressed young man was charged with stone throwing in a disturbance and given 3 months on the evidence of two policemen, contrary to several independent witnesses. A woman charged with mobbing and rioting was arrested on Friday the 7th of May she was refused bail and held in remand for two weeks in spite of the fact that she was the mother of 5 young children. On May the 14th the Labour group on the City Council called for a full inquiry into the conduct of the police after receiving several complaints from uninvolved citizens about unwarranted attacks on them, in particularly by the Specials. Tales of police and strikers playing football together never happened in Glasgow. There were calls for workers to carry "walking sticks" as a means of defending themselves, however instructions from the higher echelons instructed the workers to be peaceful and law abiding even though this was proving almost impossible due to the attitude of the police.

The Students' Representative Council of Glasgow University proclaimed itself neutral, and the number of students involved in scabbing was never as high as in Edinburgh or St Andrews. At Edinburgh University, over 2,000 out of 3,953 students enrolled as “volunteer workers” during the strike (in recognition of which a local ship-owner donated £10,000 to the university). At St. Andrew’s University, virtually all 650 students signed up as scabs. However: at Glasgow University only 300 out of 5,000 students scabbed.

In Scotland the only distribution of general news to those involved in the strike were the four editions of the STUC strike bulletin, and the STUC warned strikers against believing news from any other source, especially the BBC. The lack of published material during the strike had been a difficulty, information being carried by word of mouth round the area by walking, cycling or motorcycle. Political divisions of the Left that had been fiercely debated over the years had been forgotten, the main theme of all debate was to make the strike solid. The STUC appeared critical to local unauthorised strike bulletins and in the second week the STUC organised the publication of the Scottish Worker, which was compiled from material from the London-based Worker along with reports of local news from around Scotland in what seems to be an attempt to provide a moderate “official” alternative to the local strike bulletins. The "Scottish Worker" was published on May the 10th and for the next six days. On the first day of issue 25,000 copies sold in the first hour.  In Edinburgh the print-run of a daily duplicated strike bulletin rose from some 6,000 at the start of the strike to over 12,000 by its close. The bulletin contained strike news only, plus a commentary on such news and a reply to government propaganda. The Communist Party's rank and file National Minority Movement, issued a daily "Worker's Press" until raided and closed down by the police. The police prevented strikers from holding meetings, this was a serious hinderance to attempts to discuss and share news of the strike. There were instances of the police forcibly breaking up strikers' meetings.

How solid the strike was can be seen from the these figures: of the 2400 railway clerks in Glasgow only less than 300 turn up for work, Glasgow Corporation had 1087 tramcars but less than 200 were able to run, none of them were running on the east-end routes, but only on city centre routes. A few buses were running between Glasgow and some places south and west of the city. There were almost no blacklegs from the great mass of unemployed in spite of their poverty and suffering.

The reaction by the vast majority of the Glasgow strikers to the end of the strike was of: surprise, anger, betrayal and disgust. The rank and file movement were still loyal and would not only have carried on but would have willingly heightened the struggle.
The Partick Strike Committee held a mass meeting in a cinema with an overflow meeting outside which resolved that, "We protest against and deplore the calling off of the general strike and, furthermore, we call upon the Scottish TUC to issue an immediate call for the resumption of the strike until such time as a definite basis for a settlement is forthcoming and an assurance given that there will be no victimisation as a result of the general strike."  The Glasgow Trades and Labour Council on the 14th of May passed the following motion by 149 votes for and 36 against, "That the Trades and Labour Council express to the TUC strong disapproval of the manner in which the general strike was terminated."

In spite of the depth of feeling, they made no attempt to continue the strike locally. It would appear that in Glasgow none of the strikers disobeyed the TUC's orders by continuing the strike in support of the miners. The end of the strike was bitter for those most closely involved in its organisation and for those who lost jobs or union membership as a result. Victimisation of strikers was rife. On the railways, tramways, at the Clyde Trust, at Singer's works in Clydebank and in the newspaper industry strikes continued on terms of reinstatement, strikers eventually having to make concessions to the employers. On the railways new conditions were inferior to those in place before the strike. On the Glasgow tramways 188 T.& G.W.U. members lost their jobs. In the newspaper industry in Glasgow the three main publishers, taking in the Glasgow Herald, the Evening Times, the Bulletin, and the Evening Citizen, refused to negotiate with the unions and refused to employ union labour. In many industries throughout Glasgow leading strike activists were never reinstated to their jobs.

Overall there existed little national coordination of the Action Councils and Strike Committees, and the STUC were attacked for reining in militancy. The relatively slight impact which the strike seem to have had on the city was because of the TUC's decision not to call out workers in the engineering and shipbuilding trades at the very outset of the strike. Engineering and shipbuilding workers did eventually receive the strike call on Wednesday 12 May - the day the General Strike was called off !!

The General Council betrayed every resolution upon which the strike call was issued and without a single concession being gained. The miners were left alone to fight the mine-owners backed by the government. Most commentators agree that the strength of the strike came from the solidarity of the grass-roots mass support and the weakness from above by an indecisive bureaucracy. The strikers shock at the call off was only matched by the employers' and government's unexpected surprise. It was claimed that a significant proportion of the union leadership feared victory:

“I am not in fear of the capitalist class. The only class I fear is my own.” J.R. Cleynes - General and Municipal Workers Union

Winston Churchill spelled it out clearly “It is a conflict which, if it is fought out to a conclusion can only end in the overthrow of parliamentary government or its decisive victory.” Labour Party leader Ramsay MacDonald echoed Churchill's view: “If fought to a finish as a strike, a general strike would ruin Trade Unionism, and the Government in the meantime could create a revolution…I hope that the result will be a thorough reconsideration of trade union tactics…”

And the trade union leaders were not going to challenge the state for as the strike continued, more and more control over the day-to-day functioning of society passed into the hands of the strikers. An Independent Labour Party activist remarked “There’s never been anything like it. If the blighters o' leaders here dinnae let us down we’ll hae the capitalist crawlin’ on their bellies in a week. Oh boy, it’s the revolution at last.”

Revolution was exactly what the trade union leaders didn't want. The General Strike had opened a Pandora's Box and in the words of NUR leader Charlie Cramp “Never again!” and said Turner of the TUC General Council:I never want to see another.

The rank and file of the trade union movement were disgusted. “A victorious army disarmed and handed over to its enemies.” (A Glasgow Strike Official)

The Socialist Party of Great Britain realistically understood that there was no immediate question of revolution. It favoured the general strike for the limited objective of exerting massive pressure upon employers to concede over pay or conditions.

Throughout those tumultanous events the Socialist Party had advocated "combined action by the workers to resist the wholesale onslaught by the masters upon wages and working conditions... that the old sectional mode of industrial warfare was obsolete; that, while the development of industry had united the masters into giant combinations, with interests ramifying in every direction, supported at every point by the forces of the State, representing the entire capitalist class, the division among the workers, according to their occupations, led automatically to their steady defeat in detail. The only hope, even for the limited purpose of restricting the extent of the defeat, lay, therefore, in class combination...economic and political ignorance kept the workers divided and the defeats went on. Yet even worms will turn, and rats forced into corners will fight...There is a limit even to the stupidity of sheep; and not all the smooth-tongued eloquence of their shepherds could prevent the flock from realising that they may as well hang together as hang separately."

The Socialist Standard lamented the TUC's lack of strike plans. "As an expression of working-class solidarity the response of the rank and file was unquestionably unprecedented; but the long months, nay, years of delay found effect in the official confusion between "essential" and non-essential occupations, the handling of goods by some unions which were banned by others and the issuing of permits one day which had to be withdrawn the next. Just prior to the strike the railwaymen were working overtime providing the companies with the coal to run their blackleg trains..."

The SPGB urged the working class to learn the lessons of the General Strike. "The outlook before the workers is black, indeed, but not hopeless, if they will but learn the lessons of this greatest of all disasters. "Trust your leaders!" we were adjured in the Press and from the platforms of the Labour Party, and the folly of such sheep-like trust is now glaring. The workers must learn to trust only in themselves. They must themselves realise their position and decide the line of action to be taken. They must elect their officials to take orders, not to give them!...It is useless for the workers either to "trust" leaders or to "change" them. The entire institution of leadership must be swept by the board." At the time we urged workers to workers that they "must organise as a class, not merely industrially, for the capture of supreme power as represented by the political machine...The one thing necessary is a full recognition by the workers themselves of the hostility of interests between themselves and their masters. Organised on that basis, refusing to be tricked and bluffed by promises or stampeded into violence by threats, they will emergence victorious from the age-long struggle. Win Political Power! That is the first step."
Socialist Standard June 1926  http://www.worldsocialism.org/spgb/socialist-standard/1920s/1926/no-262-june-1926/general-strike-fiasco-its-causes-and-effects

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